Changes sought in 1872 mining law as uranium claims explode

Wednesday was dress-up day on Capitol Hill in Washington, with President Ulysses S. Grant impersonators calling on lawmakers to reform the 1872 mining law the Civil War hero enacted to encourage prospectors to, in the immortal words of Horace Greeley, “Go west, young man.”

The law, according to environmentalists, opened up 350 million acres of public lands in the western United States to virtually unchecked hard-rock mining that doesn’t make sense in the modern era of dwindling natural resources.

For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wednesday approved eight uranium mine exploration operations near Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. There’s been a run on uranium mining claims in recent months with renewed interest in nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels in the war on global warming.

But conservationists argue iconic national parks such as the Grand Canyon and other areas where claims have been filed recently — such as Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Canyonlands National Park in Utah and the proposed Dolores River Canyon wilderness area in Colorado – should be exempt from the potentially devastating impacts of uranium mining.

Conservation groups have sued to block thousands of uranium-mining claims (with a court decision expected this summer), and the Pew Environment Group is urging the Obama administration to reverse BLM approvals.

“Current federal policy that allows the mining industry to operate next to America’s national icons and against the will of local communities must be changed,” Jane Danowitz, Pew’s U.S. public lands program director, said in a release. “This situation should serve as a wakeup call: it’s time to modernize the nation’s 1872 mining law.”

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-NM introduced SB 796 to reform the 1872 law.

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